"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Fox & the Poor


Greetings dear Friends! This is Pendle Hill, once again, with Another Quaker's View. In this column, we consider George Fox's attitude towards the poor.

In 1652, George Fox entered the hill country of northwest England. For five years, Fox had been traveling across the countryside. Everywhere he went, Fox directed others to the Spirit of Christ within them. Over those five years, Fox endured harsh opposition and even prison. The hardships were many and his sympathizers were relatively few.

1652 is a pivotal year in Quaker history, because it is then -- in the hill country around Ulverston and Sedbergh -- that the Quaker movement exploded onto the world stage.

The Seekers who heard the message of George Fox embraced that message as their own. With courage and self-sacrifice, they spread the Quaker message around the world. These are important people in the history of our faith.

And yet, George Fox risks alienating this very important audience in order to care for the poor.

While discussing the logistics of Fox's upcoming speech, Fox and a few of the locals went for a walk into the hills. There, the group encountered a group of poor folk dressed as "beggars or tramps." Fox's companions discouraged him from giving his money away. If they were poor, it was because they were lazy. Or dishonest. "Whipping would be too good for them," it was said.

Nevertheless, Fox persisted. After his companions had gone inside for breakfast, Fox ran back up the hill. He provided the poor with money.

This generosity is impractical on at least two levels. First, it threatens the very important relationship Fox is building with the seekers in the area. Acting against the advice of his guides might irritate them. To them, Fox might appear, "holier than thou" or wasteful.

Fox's gift to the poor is also impractical because the recipients have been identified as unworthy of help. Without a doubt, some people are poor because they spend their money foolishly. To give them more money only allows them to spend other people's money foolishly as well! Maybe it will be gambled away. Maybe it will be used for a binge.

And yet Fox offers his help.

The failures of the rich consistently seem more troubling to Fox than the failures of the poor. In 1658, Fox wrote an open letter to the merchants of London, chiding them for the poor and the sick who wandered up and down the streets of their city. Fox writes:

"You... call yourselves Christians, and yet they are Christians as well as you and so members of the same body... (to) let them be crying up and down the streets not provided for... this is to hang gold on one arm and let the other go bare... for all are members of one body, the poor as well as the rich..."

George Fox holds the financially comfortable responsible for the suffering of the poor. What the wealthy spend on luxury should instead be spent on food for the poor:

"All your gold rings, your cuffs, your great bead-strings, your lace, your jewels, your bracelets, your gorgeous apparel and attire, turn it all into money and give it to the poor to buy them bread."

Fox points out that the hunger for wealth is limitless. Those who have much want even more. There is no natural saturation point in our desire to consume.

Because the pursuit of wealth will never exhaust itself, Fox urges his reader to pursue something else entirely.

In fact, Fox envisions a radical restructuring of the economy. Those who cater to the vanity of the rich and the idle should instead produce something plain and useful.

Whereas most contemporary discussions of poverty aim to hold the poor "accountable," Fox was inclined to give to the poor and hold the rich accountable.

Here are some questions:

1. To what extent should practical concerns influence our charitable giving? To what extent is your position a matter of preference? To what extent is it a matter of conscience?

2. Do you consider yourself rich or poor? Why?

3. In what ways do we perpetuate economic injustice?